Travelblog SA#29: El Choro Trek – Bolivia

13th-15th November 2018

Dropped off by the shore of Laguna Strellani with a backpack full of camping gear and all the food I will need to eat for the next few days, I was at the beginning of the El Choro trek.

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After passing through a car park full of tour groups getting their bikes ready to ride down the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’, I reached the ranger station where I signed in. I noticed that there didn’t seem to be too many other entries in the book in recent days. I had heard this was a popular hike, but Bolivia does receive significantly fewer visitors than Peru and we were entering the low season.

I began upon the trail, looking forward to the idea that this was a walk where I would get to experience some solitude.

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At around 4,500 meters altitude, the air was thin and I was rather breathless on my way up the pass. Once there, I was engulfed by clouds, totally obscuring – what I guess to be – the amazing views at the top, but I guess you can’t always win them all.

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From the pass, the trail snaked down into the valley. Eventually, I reached a green meadow where there were some old ruins and a woman was herding llamas. She was the first person I had seen for a couple of hours and I didn’t see anyone else until over an hour later when I reached the tiny village of Chucura, which was the next checkpoint. A man got me to sign my name in his book.

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I arrived at Challapampa at around 3pm. The owner of the campsite wasn’t there, but visitors still had access to water and the squat toilet. There were three French guys in the process of setting up their tents. We didn’t speak too much that first evening because I was tired and after making myself a dinner of soup I went straight to my tent to sleep, but I would spend the next couple of days living in their shadow. They were three, and thus sharing the burden of carrying all the gear as well as tasks such as pitching, packing and cooking, whereas I was doing all this alone. They were always a little ahead of me but, because we began the same day and had similar stamina, we ended up staying in the same places.

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Shortly into the next morning, I experienced problems along the trail. The whole trek isn’t very well marked but most of the time it doesn’t matter because there is only one way you can go anyway.

When I reached the part known as ‘El Choro’, at first I walked all the way up to a series of huts up the hill. Like most of the dwellings along the trail, they were empty – with it being the rainy season – but I realised I had reached a dead end so I had to turn back. Maps.me seemed to be indicating that the trail was along the bank of the river so I ventured there, clambering along rocks because there didn’t seem to be a defined trail.

I could see on the app that there was a bridge around the corner though. Except that when I reached that location I merely found the remains of one which had collapsed.

This wasn’t a new situation to me. This kind of thing happens a lot in South America, a region of the world which is prone to earthquakes and landslides, and usually, if a new bridge has not been built yet there will be a detour to reach an alternative bridge. I spent the next hour walking back and forth, clambering around banks, venturing back up to the huts in El Choro and even backtracking along the trail for a while because I was convinced I must have missed something, but eventually I realised that I had no other choice but to take off my shoes and try to wade across the river. And pray that there was a trail somewhere on the other side (because I couldn’t visually see one).

I am not being dramatic in saying that it was dangerous. I was almost waist deep, it was a fast running river and the rocks beneath were slippery and I couldn’t see them properly. At one point I almost slipped and I was very conscious of the fact that I was alone and that if something happened to me there would be nobody to help or even know about it.

I did make it to the other side though, but some of my things got wet along the way. After putting my shoes back on, I clambered around a few different parts of the bank and eventually found a way back onto the trail.

I am very disappointed with the people in charge of this trek for this very irresponsible behaviour though. I went through two checkpoints and neither of the people there told me anything about it. Forewarning me would have not only saved me a very frustrating hour of my life but, more importantly, it is dangerous to have no indication of how to rejoin a trail again once it is broken. When people are lost they end up wasting time they may not have the food supplies for and climbing places they shouldn’t be.

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The trail went a little uphill after that, through the cloud forest. I encountered another broken bridge an hour later. This time they had improvised a somewhat haphazard replacement but I think that it would have actually been safer to wade this one too, to be honest. When I crossed it the logs were twitching beneath my feet and at one point one of them swerved a little. Someone is going to have an accident on it one day, but luckily it wasn’t me.

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I reached San Francisco by mid-afternoon and it was one of the few campsites where the owner was actually present, but I decided to carry on a couple of hours longer to Bella Vista as there was still some daylight left.

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When I reached the Bella Vista the three French guys were there and had already set up their tent. I was feeling in a more social mood that evening so I chatted to them more. They had experienced confusion when they reached that river too but, with there being three of them, crossing it was a bit easier.

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The third morning I heard thunder as I was packing away my tent and by the time I was on the trail, it began to rain. With it mostly being downhill that day I managed to keep up with the French guys for most of that day. We passed Sandillani, the final campsite of the trail, an hour in and met a Swiss couple who had spent the night there. Of all the campsites, Sandillani was the most beautiful – it had a garden overlooking the valley and lots of little cabins which used to serve several purposes – but it was also a sad place because the Japanese man who built it and lived there for fifty years recently died and the place has begun to fall into disrepair.

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It began to rain heavier, so the French guys and I made our way. I put my cover over my backpack but didn’t put my raincoat on as it was fairly warm and I had not showered for a few days so I would prefer to be wet and refreshed than sweaty and clammy.

I didn’t get to take any photos for the rest of that day because my camera was stored safely within my backpack. It was pouring with rain and the views were obscured by clouds anyway. We made good progress, reaching Chairo before lunch.

Chairo is connected to a road but still quite far away from any public transport system, so we talked a man there who owned a minivan and negotiated a price to be taken to Coroico.

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Overall, I have to admit that El Choro was not my favourite trek I have done over the last few months, but I did miss a lot of the views because I was there at the wrong time of the year. It was certainly good for birdlife and seeing some of the cloud forests of the Yungas though.

 

For more photos, click here.

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Travelblog SA#27: Lake Titicaca Part 3 (Copacabana, Isla del Sol & Isla de la Luna) – Bolivia

6th-8th November 2018

For the third part of my time in Lake Titicaca, I crossed over the border into Bolivia. A country I will spend the next five weeks exploring. I swiftly noticed a very different ambience in the air. Bolivia’s standard of living is lower than Peru’s, and it was like travelling back in time a little. The streets looked older and were a little less maintained. Hotels advertised that they had hot water like it was a luxury. Men pushed wheelbarrows filled with vegetables down the street. There was a certain charm to it all. Not that I am glamorising poverty, I just think that everywhere has its own allure and countries shouldn’t be written off just because they are not quite as clean and comfortable by first-world standards.

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Copacabana, the primary base for exploring Lake Titicaca from the Bolivian side, is quite different to Puno. It is just a small town and, whereas Puno has multiple industries, Copacabana seems to survive almost exclusively from tourism. It was certainly much more postcard-worthy. I particularly liked its cathedral just by the main plaza and it was the first place I visited.

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My first day, I focused upon exploring the sights just a stone’s throw away. After wandering around the Cathedral, I went to Horca del Inca just outside of the town. It involved a steep climb but there were lots of interesting rock formations along the way.

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As well as wonderful panoramas of Lake Titicaca.

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The main feature of this hike though is an old astronomical observatory. This site has a  misleading name because it is actually a pre-Inca site built by the Chiripa people, who held ceremonies here during the winter solstice when the sun is aligned with the opening in these stones.

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Later in the afternoon, I climbed up Cerro Calvario which is on a peninsula overlooking the lake. It is a famous spot for watching the sunset but on that evening it was cloudy. Bolivia is entering its rainy season, so it is not the best time of the year for clear skies. It is not too wet yet though and one good thing about visiting this time of the year is that it is less crowded.

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There were some great views overlooking the lake though, and the sunset, even if you couldn’t see it fully, did cast some interesting textures on the horizon. I drank my first Paceña – one of Bolivia’s national beers – and watched it for a while before making my way down to Copacabana.

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The next day I went on a day trip to Isla del Sol. Originally I intended to spend the night on this island, but then I found out that most of it is currently closed off due to an ongoing conflict. It seems that tourism, and all the money it brings, has changed this community. Those of you who read my blog regularly will be aware that I am not one to shy away from calling out poor behaviour of first-world people when they visit other countries and how they sometimes ruin them, but this is one of the rare occasions where it appears that the fault of the tourists rests no further than their mere presence, and it is primarily the behaviour of some of the locals which is to blame.

I have both done some research online and spoken to some of the residents of Copacabana about this issue, and it seems there are many complex reasons for the developing of this feud. Tensions did begin, rather predictably, with money. Tourists are charged an admission to enter the island (which is fair enough, as we are coming in hoards and there is a certain amount of maintenance involved when a community gets bombarded by visitors). Eventually, some of the locals began imposing their own extra fees upon visitors walking the pathways which connect the north and south of the island. Because these charges were not actually authorised or regulated by any particular official authority, some of the other locals (quite rightly) got annoyed because this money was just going into the pockets of rather greedy individuals instead of benefitting the community.

Amid this building tension, a catalyst occurred. The story I was told was that some of the members of the northern side of the island built new cabanas for tourists near to a site which members of the central community considered sacred, and then said members of the central community retaliated by blowing up the cabanas with dynamite.

Ever since tourists have only been allowed to the south of the island and both the centre and north have been declared off limits until this feud has been resolved.

With only the south being accessible, it is very debatable whether it is worth spending a night on Isla del Sol now. On places like Tripadvisor people seem very polarised. Half say it is one of the most beautiful places they have been to in South America and staying the night is absolutely compulsory to get the full experience, while the other half say that it is a tourist trap where you get constantly harassed all day and there isn’t much point in staying because most of the island is closed. There isn’t much middle ground…

I was very torn by all this conflicting information, equally driven to stay overnight or just do it as a day trip. What eventually swayed it for me, was finding out about the way the boatmen behave, which I will now explain.

When you buy your ticket from Copacabana to see the islands, the price is quite cheap. A return is only slightly more expensive than a single if you are coming back the same day but, for some reason, they do not sell returns for the following day if you wish to stay overnight. I have heard reports from other gringos that people who stay overnight are often taken advantage of by the boatmen who inflate the price for the journey back by more than 50% of what they paid for their original journey there, knowing that the tourists have no other choice but to pay or be stranded.

So in the end, I decided to leave my stuff behind in Copacabana and just go as a day trip.

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The next morning, I and the other people on the boat were first taken to Isla de la Luna, Isla del Sol’s smaller sister. It was once home to an Inca nunnery of sacred virgins and some of the relics from this epoch remain.

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You are only given an hour on Isla de la Luna but with it being so small it is enough and you have plenty of time to explore the ruins and walk across its spine for some beautiful panoramas. To the west, you can see Isla del Sol.

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To the south, peninsulas from the mainland.

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And, to the east, apparently you can usually see the white peaks of the Cordillera Real, but they were covered in clouds that day.

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After our short time on Isla de la Luna, we got back onto the boat and were taken to Isla del Sol.

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Of all the islands I have been to on Lake Titicaca, Isla del Sol hands-down wins the award for being the most picturesque. There really isn’t any competition.

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During the two hours I was given to wander, I did manage to see most of what the south of this island has to offer. I climbed its two highest peaks, explored Yumani (its main village), and also walked through a forest.

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I didn’t bother walking to Pilko Kaina – the Inca ruins – though, as I saw them from the boat on the way in and they didn’t seem worth the long walk when there were such stunning views everywhere else on the island.

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So  I found the time doing it as a day trip just enough. But if you are reading this trying to make the same decision, bear in mind that I am a fast walker and even I felt a little rushed. A part of me felt that it would have been nice to be able to take my time and relax there overnight, but my wallet was certainly happier that I came to Copacabana, as accommodation and food are much cheaper there. I also didn’t have to deal with the boatmen the next day.

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Did I make the right choice? I am still not sure, to be honest. I can’t give you a straight answer over the ‘stay or go’ argument. Like I said, Isla del Sol is the most beautiful part of Lake Titicaca, but what others have said about it being touristy is also true. Like most places, Isla del Sol is complex. It has many sides to it and many different people you may end up interacting with. And thus, your experience there is partly based on luck and who you bump into. I do hope that Isla del Sol recovers from its rough patch and the community learns to adopt tourism in a healthier way.

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For jaw-dropping beauty, Isla del Sol is a must-see, whether you stay overnight or not but, if you wish to see island culture on Titicaca in a more authentic form, then I do suggest visiting Isla Amantani (on the Peruvian side). Have the best of both worlds and see them both.

 

For more photos from the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, click here. To read about my journey on the Peruvian side click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.

Travelblog SA#25: Lake Titicaca Part 1 (Uros, Amantaní & Taquile) – Peru

1st-2nd November 2018

Situated on the border between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is both the largest lake in South American and also, at 3,800 meters altitude, the highest navigable lake in the world. It has a rich history, having been inhabited by many cultures – including the Tiwanaku people – for thousands of years before the Incas came, and many ancient relics to this area’s spiritual past remain.

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This was my final week in Peru and I began it with a two-day boat journey through the lake. The boat I was cruising on took us first to the Uros archipelago. A community of floating, man-made islands made out of reeds. Each one is home to a small extended family and they form a complex network, either connected to each other directly or within close proximity.

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It is said that these people originated from the Amazon, from which they were driven out hundreds of years ago. Having no land to call their home, they created their own. The islands are mobile and they used to dwell deeper within the lake but now, having achieved a more peaceful existence with the people who live upon the shore, they have moved closer to the port town of Puno where they supplement their living on tourism and selling handicrafts.

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As a tourist, your time on Uros is very structured. You are not really allowed to wander freely and are taken to a small part of it chosen by the community. The amount of time you spend is also designated by the captain of your boat. One of the locals comes out, tells you a little about their lives, and then you get some time to browse the shops some of the inhabitants have set up.

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I am not saying this as a complaint. It was still interesting to see, even if you didn’t feel like you get to know the place and its people properly. I have seen a lot of people online complaining about this place being too ‘touristy’ and, to be quite frank, those people need to get a grip. What exactly are you expecting? You are a tourist. One out of dozens who come to a very small place each day to walk among them. Of course they are going to control where you go and try to sell you things. What other benefit are they going to get out of you nosing into their life? Minority cultures don’t exist solely for the curiosity of white people.

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After our time in Uros, we got back onto the boat and sailed deeper into the lake, passing through a channel between the beds of reeds. We saw lots of birdlife. Within an hour or so, something appeared on the horizon and it got bigger and bigger. It was the Island of Amantaní, where we were staying that night.

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Amantaní is a small island, mostly populated by Quechua-speaking farmers who have lived there for generations. There are no hotels, restaurants or cars, only homestays, which the Elders allocate to visitors on a rotating system. I was given my own room, which was surprisingly comfortable, but there was no electricity or hot water (not that I am complaining, simplicity is what I came here for). The woman who looked after me also provided me and the other guests with meals.

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After lunch, I went out and explored the island by foot.

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Despite how small this island is, it is surprisingly tiring to wander around. It is hilly and sits at an altitude of 3,800 to 4,100 meters, leaving you breathless at times. The sun is very strong too.

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First I walked to Pachatata, a peak which is home to some old Tiwanaku ruins which are still in use by locals for folk-ceremonies today.

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And then I walked to Amantaní’s highest peak of all, Pachamama, which had more ancient ruins and some wonderful views. One of my favourite sights was this photo I took.

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Amantaní has many Tiwanaku-style stone arches framing the pathways and this is one of them. In the background, you can see Pachatata, and then, beyond that, the white peaks of the Cordillera Real in Bolivia. An area I intend to explore in the coming weeks.

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Most visitors to the island remain at Pachamama till dusk to watch the sunset, but I didn’t see much point in that because it was cloudy. I walked back to the main plaza. The temperature plummeted and it quickly became chilly. On the way, I popped into a small bar and had a beer before I returned to the homestay for dinner.

I slept very well that night. At one point I needed to get up to use the toilet and saw one of the starriest skies I have ever glimpsed. In the morning, our host made us a quick breakfast and then we were back on the boat again.

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We went to visit another island called Taquile that morning. Our captain dropped us off at the northern tip and then picked us up from the other side later that day, allowing us to walk its length.

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Taquile was a little more touristy and yet also more scenic than Amantaní. Amantaní gets fewer visitors, and the ones who do come mostly stay overnight, whereas Taquile mostly just gets day-trippers. It is steeper too. Not many people seem to bother walking up to its highest peak, which is a shame because it was probably my favourite place on these islands so far, and the walk had stunning views.

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There was yet another temple at the top, which also showed signs that it was still in use by the locals today.

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After lunch, I went to the dock where the boat was waiting to take me back to Puno.

 

For more photos from Lake Titicaca, click here.